The desert sun bore down on the stagecoach, robbing its occupants of strength and reason. The sun and parched soil worked together. What the fine red dust didn't penetrate, the heat did. For the two men and woman inside the coach, the trip was miserable, but for the two men on top, it was approaching unbearable. Tom Bennett snapped the whip at the lathered horses, threatening them up the steep grade. At his side, Alan Long held his rifle ready. This was the perfect spot for an ambush. The walls rose steeply on either side of the narrow trail. Boulders poised above them, providing excellent hiding places - not to mention effective weapons.
Long squinted up at the jagged walls of the pass, his charcoal gaze scrutinizing every inch of the precipice. Geronimo and his warriors were up there someplace. He'd bet his next month's pay on it. Crook had them on the run again, and they were reputed to be holed up in these rugged mountains. They'd be looking for ammunition and horses - and revenge for the wrong done the Apache.
"Whoa!" the driver yelled, and the coach jerked, nearly unseating Long. The lead horse threw his head back and sidestepped, causing the rest of the horses to stagger. Long grabbed the hot iron rim of the wagon seat and fought to bring his rifle up. In the confusion, he glimpsed three masked men blocking the road. As the dust settled around them, Long found himself staring down the business end of a .045 colt.
"Jest lay that there rifle down, mister, an' nobody'll get hurt." The voice was casual, lacking the threat of the gun. It crossed Long's mind that the man wasn't actually robbing the stage.
Caught with his rifle muzzle aimed at the cliffs, Long cursed. This wasn't going to look good on his record. Sooner or later it was bound to happen. This was wild country, and the stage routinely carried cash to Tucson. Still, did he have to make it so easy? If he hadn't been so preoccupied with the idea of Indians on the bluffs, the highwaymen would never have gotten the drop on him. With the bluffs in mind, he gave the robber a level look.
"You're making a mistake. There are Indians up on those cliffs. The minute I put this rifle down, they'll be on us."
The outlaw's eyes crinkled and he snorted. "I reckon you figure they been holdin' off on account of one gun." He glanced over at one of the other robbers, but the .045 never wavered. "I hope he's got as much sense as he does ego." The pale blue eyes turned cold. "Now drop thet rifle, or I'll drop you."
Resistance was futile, and Bennett was the first to acknowledge it by shucking his rifle - and then his pistol. Long held his rifle out over the edge of the coach and let it clatter to the ground.
"I'm telling you, we're being watched."
Bennett chewed on his gray mustache and scanned the hills nervously, but the robber didn't seem to be concerned. He was giving all his attention to Long.
"Now, careful like, unbelt them pistols and throw them after the rifle." His gaze remained on Long as he spoke to Bennett. "Driver, you get down an' let them passengers out." The gun never wavered as he spoke to his partners. "Boys, as soon as them passengers is out, drag thet strongbox out on the ground." He gave Long a warning look. "Jest don't try to be no hero. We ain't wantin' to hurt nobody."
The other two robbers moved to follow his instructions as Long began unfastening his gun belt. If Bennett could distract the man for a second, it would give Long time to draw. But Bennett wasn't much help. Not that Long could blame him. He was getting along in years and this was his last run.
Bennett scrambled down the side of the coach and opened the coach door. The first man out was Grant Kelly, a wiry little storekeeper from El Paso. He pushed his spectacles up and raised his hands submissively. The next one out was the woman, Darla Jennings. She lifted her skirt, accepting Bennett's hand with all the composure of a queen debarking from the royal carriage. Once outside, she gave the robbers a cool once over and then glanced up at Long. Her green gaze was measuring and he wished he could do something to raise his score. There wasn't much to be done at the moment, so he tossed his gun belt after the rifle. No point in getting everyone killed just so he could maintain his record. Of course, there were the Indians - if they even existed. Why would Geronimo and his warriors bother with one stagecoach? It was probably his imagination. Surely if they were up there, they would have attacked by now.
The last one out of the coach was Martin Fesser, a burly prosecuting attorney from El Paso who was reputed to be ruthless with the accused. The general opinion was that it didn't matter if justice was carried out as long as he won his case. Fesser had the coldest black eyes Long had ever seen, and when they turned on the robbers, he was afraid the lawyer might go for the derringer visible inside his suit jacket.
"Mr.," the leader spoke in a voice that was filled with disdain, "this ain't El Paso and we ain't in no courtroom. If you jerk that gun out of your pocket, I'm gonna blow a hole clean through you. Now you jist take two fingers and pick it out of your pocket - and then pitch it over to my boys."
Fesser peered at the leader. "If you're so tough, why do you need to hide behind a mask?"
The robber's eyes crinkled again. "Kinda bugs you, don't it? Well, you kin stop strainin' that pea-sized brain of yourn. You wouldn't know me, and I never been in a courtroom."
"Yet." Fesser ground out, his black eyes pools of hate.
The robber lifted his brows. "Maybe I should shoot you right now and save myself some trouble."
Far from being frightened, Fesser's eyes flashed with fury. "I'll get you. I've never lost a case yet. You could kill me now, but somebody else would come after you. There would be wanted posters all over the place. They'd get you for robbing this stage – and murder as well."
Whether by accident or design, Fesser had the full attention of everyone. The gun in the robber's hand was now aimed at Fesser. It was now or never.
Long eased closer to the edge and then fell off the wagon seat. It was a calculated fall, and he landed with bone jarring force beside his guns. The coach was his shield as he rolled over, gasping for breath. He jerked one of his pistols from the gun belt. Lunging to his feet, he lurched around the front of the coach. Only a few seconds had lapsed, and the leader was still trying to figure out if the fall had been an accident, when Long targeted the robber's forehead.
"Call off your boys, or you're going to be the first to die," Long said.
For an instant the robber hesitated, and in that instant something hissed through the air. The lead horse reared. An arrow had gone completely through its neck. In the next few seconds, robbers and victims became allies.
The horses were lunging and screaming in their harnesses as a shower of arrows dropped from the cliffs. Long grabbed the brake and jerked back on it while the robber abandoned his horse and unhitched the team. They were going to need that coach for cover if there was any chance of getting out of this. The horses raced off around the bend. They wouldn't get far before that lead horse gave out, but at least they had a chance this way. The Indians were using arrows, which meant they were low on ammunition. Maybe they would grab the horses and take off, leaving the coach and its occupants stranded.
Grabbing his gun belt and rifle, Long slid under the coach. A muffled thud jerked his attention to the spot where he had stood only seconds before. Dust drifted away from an arrow lodged in the ground. He crawled to the other side of the coach.
Fesser knelt behind the wheel at the back of the coach and Kelly stood over him, each with a gun in hand. Fesser had one of Bennett's guns, so Kelly must have had a gun on him that no one was aware of. Kelly was firing methodically and Fesser was making quick shots. Bennett and the lead robber were crouched at the front of the coach. The other two robbers were on the ground peering over the coach at the top of the bluffs. The woman was near Long, flattening herself against the coach. Long jerked on her skirt.
"Under here!" He shouted in the din of gunfire.
She ducked under the coach with him, and he handed her one of his pistols. "Can you shoot?"
She nodded, sliding over to the edge and peering up at the cliffs. She took careful aim and Long heard a bullet ricochet off the rocks.
"Save your ammunition," he said with a stiff smile, "until you have something certain to shoot at." She wasn't going to panic, that was for sure.
As suddenly as it began, the attack ended. Now they would begin the long wait. The only way out was on foot, but that would expose them to a more successful attack. He rolled over and found the woman staring at him.
"What now?" she asked calmly.
He gave her a sour smile. "I was hoping you had an idea."
She smiled, engaging a tiny dimple at the corner of her mouth.
"Mr. Jones assured me that with you riding shotgun, I wouldn't have anything to worry about."
"Is that why you're so calm?"
She shrugged and turned to watch the bluff. "Getting hysterical never helped anyone out of a jam." She was silent for a few moments. "Do you suppose they are still up there?"
He opened his mouth to respond and realized the wagon was starting to roll. He reached out and jammed the brake shoe against the wheel. Fesser and Kelly grabbed the other back wheel and the coach sat still again. Long glanced at the girl, who was wide eyed at that point.
"I've got an idea," he said. "Can you hold on to that wheel for a few minutes?"
She nodded and grabbed the wheel. He slid to the other side and tapped the robber on the shoulder. "Mr., can you get under there and hold the other wheel while I get a noose around that brake?"
The robber gave him a crooked smile, the bandanna now around his neck. "I never had nothin' aginst helpin a perty girl." He pushed his hat back. "An' the name is Kern, Pete Kern. My partners over there are Smith and Jones." He grinned, showing crooked yellow teeth.
"Well, Kern," Long drawled. "you remember that woman is a lady."
Kern's smile turned sour. "I got a feelin' she wouldn't let me forget."
Long turned to Bennett. "Help me get that roll of rope out of the boot. I think I know how we can get out of this ambush."
Together, Long and Bennett worked until they had rope strung from the brake lever and one from each side of the singletree. The Indians were using their rifles now, but only a few shots were fired at them as they worked – proof that the Indians were low on ammunition. They were patient, those Apaches - and desperate.
"Get inside the coach," Long told Bennett, "and pull that brake tight." He turned to the others. "Then the rest of you get in."
Fesser stared at him. "You plan on rolling this thing down that hill?"
Long nodded. "Unless you've got a better idea."
Fesser eyed the ropes skeptically. "Who's going to guide that thing? There's a two hundred foot drop-off back there, and that's a steep hill."
"I noticed that going up," Long responded lightly. "If you're so worried about that cliff, I'd suggest you help Bennett with the brakes."
"You're crazy," Kern said and then shrugged with a grin. "But I like the ideer anyhow. It beats waitin' here to be scalped."
They all loaded into the coach and Bennett released the brake lever a little. The coach started to roll backwards. Long tested the ropes, pulling one way and then the other. The coach snaked along the road. It wouldn't be easy, but it would work. He nodded at Kelly, who sat next to the window.
"Let me know if I get too close to that side." He turned to Bennett. "Let's go."
As soon as the coach started moving faster, bullets rained down on them from above. Thanks to the baggage and the steep walls of the cliff that kept the Indians above them, they were relatively safe. They were safe from the Indians, but as the coach began to move faster, it was obvious that they were in trouble.
It wasn't the first time Long had driven a stagecoach, but rolling backwards, it didn't handle the same way. In the first few minutes, Long sent it from one side of the narrow road to the other.
"Slow it down some, Bennett," Long instructed.
Bennett heaved on the rope and the coach barely slowed. Fesser grabbed the end of the rope, and together they brought the coach back down to a maneuverable speed. Gradually Long began to get a feel for how far to pull. Finally he nodded to Bennett.
"Let up a little more. I think I've got it now."
The firing from above had ceased. What did the Indians think of the situation? They were probably amused - and maybe going after those horses. It would take them a while, maybe long enough for the coach to get far down the mountain - hopefully not via the cliff.
The coach rolled faster as the grade steepened. They were coming to that cliff now. Long felt the sweat trickle down his back, and the hair lifted on his neck. Fesser looked gray.
"Bennett, you'd better slow her down," Long said. He hoped no one could hear the fear in his voice. There was no way he could make that turn at this speed. Bennett and Fesser jerked on the brake, and the coach slid sideways.
"Let up!" Long yelled.
They let off the brake, and the coach straightened.
"Now pull again," Long said as he sawed on the ropes.
Gradually the coach slowed, but they were still going faster than Long wanted when they reached the curve. The coach wheels slid to within inches of the edge as they rounded the curve. Everyone shifted to the other side, leaving Long more room to work. Time seemed to slow down as they rounded the curve. The group inside the coach was deathly silent. The only sounds were the metal rims on the wheels crushing the hard soil and the tongue as it drug over the rocks. The coach meandered around the curve and picked up speed as they rolled between two boulders.
Inside the coach there was one long hiss as everyone let out their breath at once. The rest of the way was straight down hill - far from the cliffs. That was when they heard the sound. Horses - lots of them. The Indians?
Kelly leaned his head out the window and yelled. "Troopers coming up the road!" He jerked on the rope, pulling the coach to a stop.
Fesser dropped the end of the rope and pointed his gun at Kern.
"You just sit still."
"Let them go," Darla said.
Fesser scowled at her. "You can't let them get away with this. They'll be out there robbing the next stage. If it hadn't been for them ..."
"If it hadn't been for them, we'd all be dead," she answered crisply.
"She's right," Long interrupted. "Those Indians weren't expecting so much opposition. They figured to take us with a few arrows - and they might have done it if we hadn't been stopped so we could take cover."
Fesser shook his head. "That isn't the point. These men were trying to rob the stage."
"If you want to get down to bare facts," Darla spoke again, "they didn't actually rob the stage. In fact, they stopped and helped us fight the Indians."
The three robbers said nothing. No doubt they knew Darla was the best representation they were going to get. Fesser held the gun on Kern.
"Who are you?"
Kern met his evil stare with equal poison. "I don't look nothin' like my little brother. Not thet you'd remember, anyways. Folks told me how you gloated over winning that case. It didn't matter that he was innocent."
Fesser frowned. "Milt Kern? I remember - I thought he was guilty. Everybody thought he was guilty. I was just doing my job. Everybody makes mistakes now and then."
"Yeah," Kern answered sourly. "Only most folks learn from their mistakes."
Fesser eyed him distastefully. "Did you expect me to take down my shingle? A man takes his whippings and gets up afterward."
"Well Milt didn't. It's kind of hard to get up when you've got a rope stretchin' yer neck."
Fesser glared at him. "So you figured robbing the stage would make things right?"
"I figgered robbin' this stage would hit you where it hurts. Most of that's your money, ain't it?"
A head poked through the window. "You people alright in there?" Golden bars on the man's shoulders proclaimed him the captain. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. How'd you get this thing around that curve up there?" His gaze fell on the gun in Fesser's hand. "You can put that thing down now, sir. The Indians are gone, and I wouldn't want any accidents."
Fesser hesitated and Long glanced at Kern. "I could use three volunteers to go back with me to get those horses."
Darla smiled. "Maybe Mr. Fesser would like to volunteer. I think he'd like to go around that corner again."
Fesser stared at her for a moment and then tucked the gun in his breast pocket. "Get them out of my sight, Long, before I change my mind."
Long kicked the door open and helped Darla out. The others followed and the captain whistled.
"I've never seen so many passengers on this route. You were lucky you had so many men." He tipped his hat at Darla. "I hope you weren't too frightened, ma'am."
Darla smiled sweetly. "Oh no. I knew I was in good hands. Mr. Bennett told me before we left El Paso." She shot Long a wizened glance. "And he was right."
This story can be purchased in the book HORSE OPERA, a collection of short western stories by L. L. Rigsbee